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Turmoil In Afghanistan Spills Into Central Asia


Uzbek soldiers near Termez guard a checkpoint on August 15, two kilometers from a bridge over the Amu Darya River that separates Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

The events that the governments of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have been increasingly dreading in recent weeks have begun to happen.

The Afghan government has fallen to the Taliban and despite the Central Asian governments having had years to contemplate and plan for such an occurrence, the initial shock waves from south of the border seem to have particularly caught Tajikistan and Uzbekistan off guard.

Tajikistan has been preparing since early June to accept refugees in the event the situation in northern Afghanistan deteriorated -- and it was not long thereafter that refugees crossed the border.

But most of those crossing from Afghanistan into Tajikistan in late June were soldiers or paramilitaries, nearly 150 of them, out of food and ammunition, with no other recourse than to flee Afghanistan.

Tajikistan Tense As Fighting In Afghanistan Approaches Border
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By July 6, hundreds more had come -- some 2,300 according to the Afghan government -- all of whom were reportedly put on planes bound for Kabul.

Uzbekistan faced a similar situation in late June on a smaller scale as dozens of Afghan soldiers and paramilitaries tried to cross the border but were sent back.

And in early July, about 1,000 Afghan civilians crossed the border into eastern Tajikistan.

But starting on August 14, when the biggest city in northern Afghanistan, Mazar-e Sharif, fell to the Taliban, the exodus of people from Afghanistan was literally a "flight" -- by plane and helicopter -- which seems to have surprised Tajik and Uzbek authorities.

Getting The Story Straight

How many aircraft crossed into Central Asia is unclear and there are significantly different figures being reported.

One report said that, on August 14-15, at least 22 military planes and 24 helicopters crossed from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan and that "they were forced to land at the international airport at [the Uzbek border city of] Termez."

There were reportedly 585 Afghan soldiers aboard those aircraft.

Another 158 civilians and soldiers crossed the Amu Darya River that marks the Afghan-Uzbek border, on August 15.

The Uzbek prosecutor-general posted a statement on August 17 that said between August 14 and 15, 46 Afghan planes and helicopters (22 planes and 24 helicopters) "illegally" crossed the border and were forced to land at Termez.

That statement was later removed, the Prosecutor-General's Office said, due to factual errors.

The office made no attempt to explain how -- with so many civilian and military officials having been to the region recently -- there were factual errors in the original post.

Janes, an open-source company specializing in military and security intelligence, reported on August 18 that satellite images showed "21 small, fixed-wing aircraft" and "about 26 helicopters" of the Afghan Air Force were at the Termez airport as of August 16.

Other conflicting reports concerned one Afghan military plane that originally was said to have crashed on August 15 in Uzbekistan's Surhandarya Province, which borders Afghanistan.

Gazeta.uz reported two Afghan servicemen were taken to the local hospital, presumably after bailing out of the plane.

Later it was reported that the plane was shot down by Uzbekistan's air defenses when it illegally flew across the border from Afghanistan.

To add to the confusion, there were reports on August 16 that three Afghan military planes had entered Uzbek air space on August 15 and requested permission to land at Uzbekistan's Khanabad military base.

But Uzbek air-traffic controllers directed the Afghan planes to land at Termez and sent two Uzbek Mig-29s to escort them.

One of the Afghan planes reportedly collided with an Uzbek plane and crashed in the Sherabad district of Surhandarya Province. The pilots of both planes are said to have ejected.

On August 14, Uzbek authorities allowed 84 Afghan soldiers to cross into Uzbekistan for medical treatment and temporary shelter, though there was a report that "hundreds" of Afghans had crowded onto the Dustlik (Friendship) Bridge that connects the two countries.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry said at that time that negotiations were under way to return the Afghans.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said it will charge them with illegally crossing into Uzbekistan. For many of these soldiers, an Uzbek prison cell is probably preferable to what would await them in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's Tolo TV reported that on August 15-16 there were 45 flights from Afghanistan to Tajikistan and the Uzbek city of Termez.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, reported on August 16 that sources in the State Committee for Emergency Situations said three planes and two helicopters from Afghanistan landed in Tajikistan's southern town of Bokhtar carrying 143 Afghan soldiers.

According to the independent Tajik news website Asia-Plus, the Tajik Foreign Ministry said "We received an SOS signal, after which, in accordance with the country's international obligations, a decision was made to allow the Afghan military [aircraft] to land at the airport in Bokhtar."

The Foreign Ministry said there were only two planes and that both "flew back" to Afghanistan after dropping off their passengers.

The Afghan soldiers were reportedly being housed at the dormitory of a local university.

Asia-Plus also reported a source at the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan claiming that 18 Afghan planes -- two passenger and 16 military -- had flown to Tajikistan.

Conversely, there is little information about the situation along Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan.

Turkmen state media outlets, as expected, have not reported on any of the monumental events that have recently taken place in Afghanistan.

But RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported that Turkmen authorities are preventing any Afghans -- military or civilian, including ethnic Turkmen -- from crossing the border into Turkmenistan.

Notable Afghans Officially Not In Central Asia

When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled his country on August 15 there were reports he was headed to Tajikistan.

Tajik officials denied Ghani landed in Tajikistan even though it was reported that Ghani flew toward Tajikistan when he departed Kabul.

And there is at least one version that Ghani had a deal to fly to Tajikistan but, at the last moment and "for unclear reasons," Tajikistan refused to accept him.

Officials in the United Arab Emirates stated on August 18 that Ghani and his family were in Dubai, though it is not known when he arrived there.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (center) with Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum (file photo)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (center) with Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum (file photo)

On August 14, former Afghan Vice President and notorious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum -- who had been put in charge of Afghan government forces in northern Afghanistan just days earlier -- and former Balkh Province Governor Ata Muhammad Nur reportedly fled Mazar-e Sharif with many troops and vehicles and tried to cross into Uzbekistan.

There were reports Dostum and Nur were still in Uzbekistan but, according to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry denied that Dostum, Nur, or Ghani were in Uzbekistan.

What's Next?

Tajikistan has not indicated it will send any of the Afghans currently on its territory back to Afghanistan.

But Uzbek authorities are trying not to upset their ties with the Taliban, which is why they are seemingly rejecting refugees.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry released a statement on August 17 saying it was in close contact with the Taliban and that "any attempts to violate the state border will be strictly suppressed."

Turkmen officials, as mentioned, do not make any public comments about the situation in Afghanistan beyond previous calls for stability in the neighboring country, and Ashgabat almost never says anything about the situation along Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan.

Turkmen officials have met with Taliban representatives at least three times in 2021, but despite whatever reassurances the two sides gave each other, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov seems unsure about his country's security.

Turkment Prsident Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)
Turkment Prsident Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)

Besides pouring troops and military equipment -- much of the hardware bought in the last six years -- into areas along the Afghan border, Berdymukhammedov has also accepted an invitation to be a guest in Tajikistan in mid-September for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which Berdymukhammedov has attended twice before -- in 2007 and 2016.

He is also going to a meeting in Dushanbe of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which Berdymukhammedov has never attended before.

If what happened in the first few days after the Afghan government fell to the Taliban is the worst the Central Asian states have to deal with in the future, they will probably consider themselves fortunate.

But it is a reminder that Central Asia and Afghanistan are closely connected, and whatever happens in Afghanistan is difficult to keep from spilling into Central Asia.

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.

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